08/28/2008 12:00AM

Crowned heads a Spa rarity


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - It's been a decade since a reigning Horse of the Year raced at Saratoga, a drought that will end Saturday when Curlin goes into the gate for the Woodward Stakes. If you can name the last one without getting out the reference books, your memory's better than mine.

While you're thinking back, note that a Horse of the Year has returned to run in the Woodward in the current millennium, but not when the race was at Saratoga. Tiznow, who won the title in 2000, ran in the 2001 Woodward at Belmont Park, where he ran third to Lido Palace and Albert the Great in his first start since winning the Santa Anita Handicap six months earlier. He went on to win a second Breeders' Cup Classic two starts later, but lost the 2001 Horse of the Year voting to Point Given.

Azeri was the last Horse of the Year titlist to race at Saratoga, but she no longer held the throne when she won the 2004 Go for Wand and finished second to Storm Flag Flying in the Personal Ensign. She won that award in 2002 but settled for just the older-female championships in 2003 and 2004, when Mineshaft and Ghostzapper won respective top honors.

The last crown-wearing Horse of the Year to race at Saratoga was . . . Favorite Trick, who won that title as a 2-year-old in a close and controversial ballot for the 1997 season over Skip Away and Silver Charm. Favorite Trick won all eight of his starts at 2 and the Swale in his 3-year-old debut, then ran a close third in the Arkansas Derby and faded to eighth in the 1998 Kentucky Derby. Freshened up, he came back to win the Long Branch at Monmouth and then, on Aug. 1, 1998, won a three-way photo over Deputy Diamond and Raffies Majesty in the Jim Dandy at the Spa. His connections then passed on the Travers, given the colt's clear distance limitations, and instead ran him back in the King's Bishop on the Travers undercard, where he ran fifth.

To find a previous reigning Horse of the Year who ran at Saratoga, you have to skip past Cigar, Holy Bull, Kotashaan, A.P. Indy, Black Tie Affair, Criminal Type, Sunday Silence, Alysheba and Ferdinand and go back to the 1986 Horse of the Year, Lady's Secret. She was unbeaten in three starts over the track, having won the Test and Ballerina at 3 and the Whitney during her title season at 4, but her fourth Saratoga start turned out to be the last of her career. Sent off at 3-10 in a five-filly allowance race that began the Aug. 10, 1987 card, she bolted on the first turn and was pulled up, effectively announcing she had done enough after winning 25 of 45 career starts and was done with racing.

None of this ancient history is meant to suggest that Curlin will be laboring under a curse Saturday just because Favorite Trick and Lady's Secret were off the board while wearing their crowns at Saratoga. The only Grade 1 winner facing him in this Woodward is Divine Park, who hasn't raced since winning the Met Mile on May 26, and the six other entrants are a combined 0 for 22 in Grade 1 and Group 1 races.

His most dangerous opponent could be Wanderin Boy, Nick Zito's "other" 7-year-old (besides Commentator). Wanderin Boy looks like the lone speed of this Woodward and has run second to champions Invasor (2006 Pimlico Special), Bernardini (2006 Jockey Club Gold Cup), and Lawyer Ron (2007 Whitney). If Zito can add an upset of Curlin to his recent Belmont Stakes upsets of Smarty Jones and Big Brown with Birdstone and Da' Tara, Allen Jerkens may have to bequeath him that "Giant Killer" title.

Saratoga management has promoting Curlin's appearance with unprecedented vigor, including civic celebrations, banners around town, a jam-packed "Curlin's Corner" on its website, and something we rarely see in racing - an entire advertising campaign centered around a particular horse. If the weather holds, a crowd of 30,000 is expected Saturday, and track officials hope it will build some momentum that might carry through to Curlin's next scheduled start, the Jockey Club Gold Cup at attendance-challenged Belmont Park on Sept. 27.

That's assuming, of course, that this Horse of the Year survives Saratoga better than the last two who tried it.